, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 193-215

Generic physical mechanisms of morphogenesis and pattern formation as determinants in the evolution of multicellular organization

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Abstract

Early embryos of metazoan species are subject to the same set of physical forces and interactions as any small parcels of semi-solid material, living or nonliving. It is proposed that such “generic” properties of embryonic tissues have played a major role in the evolution of biological form and pattern by providing an array of morphological templates, during the early stages of metazoan phylogeny, upon which natural selection could act. The generic physical mechanisms considered include sedimentation, diffusion, and reaction-diffusion coupling, all of which can give rise to chemical nonuniformities (including periodic patterns) in eggs and small multicellular aggregates, and differential adhesion, which can lead to the formation of boundaries of non-mixing between adjacent cell populations. Generic mechanisms that produce chemical patterns, acting in concern with the capacity of cells to modulate their adhesivity (presumed to be a primitive, defining property of metazoa), could lead to multilayered gastrulae of various types, segmental organization, and many of the other distinguishing characteristics of extant and extinct metazoan body plans. Similar generic mechanisms, acting on small tissue primordia during and subsequent to the establishment of the major body plans, could have given rise to the forms of organs, such as the vertebrate limbs. Generic physical processes acting on a single system of cells and cell products can often produce a widely divergent set of morphological phenotypes, and these are proposed to be the raw material of the evolution of form. The establishment of any ecologically successful form by these mechanisms will be followed, under this hypothesis, by a period of genetic evolution, in which the recruitment of gene products to produce the “generically templated” morphologies by redundant pathways would be favoured by intense selection, leading to extensive genetic change with little impact on the fossil record. In this view, the stabilizing and reinforcing functions of natural selection are more important than its ability to effect incremental change in morphology. Aspects of evolution which are problematic from the standard neo-Darwinian viewpoint, or not considered within that framework, but which follow in a straightforward fashion from the view presented here, include the beginnings of an understanding of why organisms have the structure and appearance they’ do, why homoplasy (the recurrent evolution of certain forms) is so prevalent, why evolution has the tempo and mode it does (“punctuated equilibrium”), and why a “rapid” burst of morphological evolution occurred so soon after the origin of the metazoa.